I find it funny to hear the different ways long distance runners are described; obsessed, addicted, stubborn, motivated, persistent, competitive, driven, determined, and my favorite, crazy. Non-runners generally respect someone who is able to get out and run a few miles as part of their morning workout. But if you mention to someone that you’re going to do a 22 mile training run, they look at you like you’re from another planet. They may respect you, but they definitely don’t understand you.
We run for so many reasons… health, finding peace, mental clarity, feeling strong, staying humble, and having a sense of accomplishment. But ultimately most everyone who runs long distances does it for one main reason: enjoyment.
Recently I was forced to answer the question about why I run. I had the privilege of assisting with the coaching of our destination marathon group as they prepared to run the New Orleans marathon and half. Although I wasn’t going to New Orleans, I was there most Saturday mornings, running double digit miles through snow, ice and braving the cold and wind. And even though many of those mornings were rough, it was a lot of fun and I got to know some great folks as we toughed out those miles. I used this training to prepare me for a different race that I was going to do the same weekend my friends were in New Orleans… the John Dick Memorial 50k. This race is 30.5 miles on snow covered trails in the Kettle Moraine Forest. I had done this race once before, and even though I had a great time, it is not an easy event.
I was excited for this year’s event, but the week leading up to the race, I came down with a cold. It wasn’t too bad, but my head was congested, I was coughing a lot, and I wasn’t getting the sleep that I wanted. My wife and friends were asking if I was still going to run, and since I had already registered, I said that I would make that decision the morning of the race.
I started to feel better the day before the event, but I was nowhere near 100%. But once Saturday morning came, I decided to give it a shot. The way the course is laid out, runners end up doing a series of out-and-backs on the trails, which means we end up running past the start/finish area 8 times during the race. That way if things go horribly wrong, you’re never that far from help.
The weather that morning was incredible… for skiing. Not so much for running. It had snowed heavily all night and was continuing to snow as the race began. I kept thinking that it would have been a perfect morning to go cross country skiing, but here I was, running 50 kilometers in some of the most brutal conditions I had ever encountered.
Without getting into too much detail, by mile 18 I was pretty much walking 50% of the time. Every step my foot would slip, my hamstrings felt like they were on fire, I had no energy, I couldn’t eat and my lungs started to sound like they were crackling every time I took a breath. But I kept telling myself that I wouldn’t quit and I refused to entertain thoughts of dropping out. I have only dropped out of a race once before (my first attempt at running 100 miles), and even though I physically couldn’t continue that race, I still wish that I could have continued.
Any long distance runner will tell you that the later miles in a long-distance race is just as much mental (and emotional) as it is physical. So as my body was in pain, I was using this event as “brain training”. As the morning turned into early afternoon, I kept repeating, “I will not quit.”
As I came through the start/finish aid station at mile 24.5, I saw a friend of mine standing around who I knew was only a few miles ahead of me. Even though he is a far better runner than me, I was surprised to see that he had changed out of his running gear and was eating a bowl of chili. I asked him how he finished so quickly, and he told me that he had decided to drop because it just wasn’t his day. His I.T. band was starting to hurt, he was cold, he was out of energy, and ultimately he said that it wasn’t worth it for him to finish the remaining 6 miles. He said that sometimes it’s just not worth suffering through an event if it’s going to set you back in the future, whether due to a physical injury or emotional burnout.
It was then that I realized that I was not enjoying myself at all, and if I had kept going, I not only increased the risk of being sick, but also losing the enjoyment of something that I love doing. I feel so lucky to be able to work in an industry that I’m passionate about. But I also realize that sometimes I have to protect myself from getting burned out… and that is a very real possibility when a runner becomes too obsessed, stubborn or driven. Running sick can cause you to become sick of running.
So I dropped out… and I’m ok with that. Sometimes we need a break, and not just our bodies, but our minds and our emotions as well. I’ve seen too many runners refuse to deviate from their training plans, and even though they stick with it to the end, they lose heart. So although I have many measurable running goals for the near future, ultimately my long term goals haven’t changed. For as long as I can, I want to be a healthy and happy runner.So after a few days off, it’ll soon be time to start getting ready for my next race: The Chippewa Moraine 50k in New Auburn, WI at the end of April.
As a final note, I want to personally offer my gratitude to Robert Wehner and all the volunteers that made the John Dick Memorial 50k another fantastic event this year. I’ll be seeing you next February.